Teens and ‘Study Drug’ Abuse
Teenagers have been pulling all-nighters and cramming for tests for as long as schools have existed. Maybe even you have pulled an all-nighter, fueled by nothing more than a 2-liter bottle of caffeinated soda and the fear of telling your parents you failed an important test. Today, however, many teens are turning to something a lot more powerful than Pepsi or Red Bull to help them stay awake while they study. They’re using other substances — the kind that can lead to a serious drug addiction — to fuel their academic endeavors.
The stimulants typically used as “study drugs” are medications — the kind frequently prescribed for mental health conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. In teenagers with a legitimate medical need like ADHD, these drugs have a counterbalancing effect on the brain. In essence, they help create a calmer state of mind that allows the teen to focus more readily. When used properly by those who need them, prescription stimulants are not addictive.
These same medicines, however, have a different effect on teens who don’t struggle with ADHD. They start using these medications — for example Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, or Adderall — with the belief that they will sharpen their focus, boost their energy, help them stay alert, and / or enhance their school performance. While the drugs may provide bursts of energy and improve alertness temporarily, they also quickly create a vicious cycle — the cycle that can easily lead to drug addiction. With continued use, teens often find they need increasing amounts of the drugs to get the same effect, so they keep upping the dose. Eventually they become so dependent on the drug that they can’t function without it.
The drugs, which have street names like Vitamin R, college crack, or Addy, can be taken in their original pill or capsule form. Some teens will crush the pill or open the capsule to snort the drug directly into their system. Regardless of how they are taken, there is no evidence that study drugs boost academic performance in teens not diagnosed with ADHD.
A survey found that approximately 10% of teenagers admit to using study drugs. However, the same survey also revealed that only one in 100 parents believe their teen is using the drugs. The study also found that use was concentrated among white students, while African-American and Latino teens tended to use them less. The use of study drugs rises to as much as 35% in college students. In addition, nearly 30% of teens surveyed believe it is safer to use prescription drugs than illegal street drugs.
Access to Study Drugs
Teenagers can be very savvy when it comes to acquiring these drugs, particularly if they’ve become addicted to them or already struggle with a drug addiction. For example, some will game the health care system by learning the symptoms of ADHD. They convince their parents and doctor that they have the disorder, receiving a legal prescription that then allows them access to one of these study drugs. This method may also permit some adolescents to receive the medication under a parent’s health care plan. This allows them to get the drug without coming up with the money to purchase it themselves.
Another way teens access study drugs is by theft. Some will take advantage of a family member with ADHD, stealing from his or her supply of legitimately prescribed medications. Some teens will steal physicians’ prescription pads to write out their own authorization for the drugs.
Some teens will illegally purchase stimulant medications. For example, they may buy a few pills from a friend who has a legitimate prescription. In fact, research shows that one out of every three teens believes it’s OK to take medications that have not been prescribed to them.
Why Teens Abuse Study Drugs
Teenagers face increasing pressure to succeed in school. Kids can be worried that if they don’t get good grades, they won’t be accepted into competitive colleges, won’t win needed grant or scholarship funds, or will become ineligible for high school or college sports. When health science researchers analyzed Twitter feeds for 6 months, they found that Adderall mentions spiked during typical finals periods. Mentions of the study drug were also higher mid-week and lower on the weekend. The findings suggest that students are talking about Adderall during the usual periods of academic stress.
Danger of Study Drug Addiction
Like any prescription medication, ADHD drugs have side effects — some of which are quite common with medications in general. Teens who take these drugs may experience stomach upset, sleep problems, decreased appetite, or daytime drowsiness. Long-term use can also slow height gain, with at least one expert reporting that a user might be as much as a quarter-inch shorter each year.
Study drug abuse has other side effects as well. For example, some individuals taking ADHD medications have reported heart problems. This can be an especially serious issue if an abuser lives with an undiagnosed heart condition. A teen might also develop tics, or repetitive motions, such as head jerking or excessive blinking.
Stimulants may also alter mood. This often occurs as the effects of the drug wear off. Sometimes referred to as the “rebound effect,” some teens may become very sensitive or more irritable. Others may appear to react differently than is normal for them. For example, they may appear to be sad even though they don’t feel sad. These types of side effects are more common in short-acting stimulants.
The abuse of study drugs can also mask the effects of alcohol. A teen using study drugs and drinking may not realize how intoxicated he’s become. He may binge drink because he doesn’t feel the effects of the alcohol. The combination of alcohol and stimulant medication can lead to dangerous situations that result in blackouts, alcohol poisoning, drunken driving and serious accidents and injuries. Approximately two out of three emergency room visits involving ADHD medications also involved at least one other substance, such as alcohol.
Warning Signs of Study Drug Abuse
- Altered mood or behavior, including irritability or intense mood swings
- Periods of sleeplessness
- Decreased appetite or weight loss
- Lapses in memory
- Dilated pupils
- Dry nose and mouth
- Secretive behavior, such as isolation or unexplained spending
What Parents Can Do
If you suspect your teen is abusing study drugs, seek professional help. An addiction specialist can help you come up with a plan to get your teen into rehab. Treatment will include a mental health assessment to identify other challenges your teen may be facing. For instance, he or she may have a co-occurring mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, that is contributing to the addictive behavior.
Because study drug abuse is often triggered by a desire to perform well, therapy can teach your teen how to deal with stress and anxiety in a healthy manner. A therapist may introduce helpful relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. Other recommended stress relief remedies may include physical activity, like regular exercise, or a creative outlet, such as journaling.
If your teen does not have ADHD and is abusing Adderall or other stimulant medications, it can lead to drug addiction. Talk with an addiction expert who’s experienced with treating adolescents. Your teenager’s life and well-being are worth more than his or her ability to excel in school.
Read More about Student Drug Abuse: College Student’s Death Sparks Renewed Warnings About the Dangers of Inhalants